One of the best parts about Japan are the festivals. There are so many festivals happening year round, and most of them are specific to the local community. They are a great opportunity to observe local talent and interesting traditions. There might be a parade, ancient palanquins, or even music and elaborate costumes. One thing is for certain, there will always be delicious food, and lots of people.
The Kikusui Matsuri at Futaarayama was a beautiful collaboration of an intense cacophony of instruments, and pageantry. There were many people dressed in traditional garb, and some prepared for a purification ceremony. I wandered around, lost in a world I've never known. I found the surroundings nearly overwhelming, and deeply satisfying but some people appeared distracted. There were some stares. They don't see a lot of non-Japanese people and I felt like a moving display, open to interpretation and hushed curiosity.
I didn't mind though. I was too busy admiring the intricately decorated horen or letting the ritual sounds thunder through my heart. There was something so spiritual, so wondrous that I couldn't help but become entirely enraptured.
I visited the local shrine often, since that's where all the events seemed to take place. I missed a lot of events actually, due to work conflicts, but I feel lucky to have witnessed a few, like Oshougatsu. The New Year's Day Festival started late December 31, and became unbelievably crowded before midnight. People were out drinking and partying in the square. I couldn't believe it. I could barely maneuver through the crowd - not a normal sight in the small city. They were lined up to visit the shrine and hopefully attain good fortune for the year. What surprised me the most was everyone counted down to midnight in English! It made everything feel so surreal.
Soon after New Year's Day, there was a parade of fire fighters, performers, martial artists, and even children. At the end, a long line of fire trucks drove past slowly. In the meantime, they maintained regular traffic in all the other lanes. I was astonished. A parade of this size and importance was still not enough to shut down part of a main street. Trust the Japanese to put efficiency and politeness at the top of their priorities, wouldn't want to bother people too much with an annual parade.
I visited Ueno Park in April during the finals days of hanami. Most of the sakura (cherry blossom) petals were gone, but it was still beautiful. Ueno has a zoo, a couple national museums and even a "lake". I walked around the park, visited the museum, ate small octopus on a stick and even had the opportunity to get in a swan boat with a friend for funsies. I enjoyed it!
During Golden Week, on Kodomo no Hi, there was a concert in front of the shrine. It featured several different bands, playing varying degrees of rock. Some bands were more metal, and others were more pop. The best part about the concert was the amount of people dressed up in some form of cosplay. I loved seeing such creativity and imagination sprung to life on the people around me. Most of them were college students, taking the opportunity to celebrate. Some were middle aged men simply enjoying the spectacle of wearing a skirt out in public. I ended up buying an album and tweeting about the event - I really did enjoy the music.
I saw so many festivals. One of my favourites featured a small market in a rural town. It barely covered a block, and was dappled with tents covering handmade crafts, and unique novelties. I saw old Astro Boy manga, a gold leaf ashtray from France, jade necklaces, baskets, food vendors and even a booth to make your own pin or keychain. I bought myself a figurine of komainu - which surprised the locals. I also bought some handmade jewellry, and designed a keychain alongside a 5 year old girl. All the meanwhile, I could feel everyone's eyes on me. I listened to elderly singers strain to hit the right pitch over the speakers, while pedestrians stared relentlessly. In fact, as soon as I started browsing, a man with a camera began to follow me. He wanted to know where I was from and if he could take a picture. I told him it was fine and he took a couple. Then some of the vendors wanted to know where I was from and what I was doing there. They were surprised by the presence of a foreigner to their little town (minutes away from a major tourist destination). Everyone had to ask. I thought it was sweet and enjoyed their curiosity. Although, the man with the camera kept following me and taking photos...guess I granted him the right to be my temporary paparazzi. It was sort of funny, and I think of those moments fondly. The sun shining brightly, the wind tousling my hair, and meeting some of the nicest (and most curious) people in Japan.
Compared to larger festivals within the city - the people kept to themselves and seemed too shy to approach me. Sort of an odd juxtaposition. All-in-all, Japanese festivals are entertaining and enriching. They're an excellent chance for anyone to become involved in the culture, and take part in something bigger.
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